In the modern age, green tea has become one of the most popular styles of tea around the globe, thanks to modern shipping technology and heavily marketed health benefits. But among the common bottled, bagged, and flavored blends, it can be hard to discern the huge variety of natural flavors that result from terroir and crafting techniques. Though there are literally thousands of unique varieties and styles, one easy distinction to make when shopping for loose leaf green tea is between Chinese and Japanese styles.
Despite the fact that both tea traditions stem from the same early Chinese techniques of steaming and compressing green tea leaves, the two styles have diverged dramatically during the intervening millennia. Today, green teas from these two countries contrast in almost every way; from the growing process, to the methods used for crafting, all the way down to the way they’re brewed and served.
Chinese Green Teas
After many centuries of steaming and compressing green tea leaves into cakes, loose leaf tea styles were declared the new Imperial standard in the Ming Dynasty. Rather than steaming the leaves, green tea makers developed new methods of firing tea leaves in a dry wok, which helped remove moisture while keeping each leaf distinct.
Over time, each region in China developed unique methods of frying and shaping their tea leaves, ranging from flattened Dragonwell buds to twisted Pi Lo Chun leaves or the trimmed and carefully shaped leaves of Liu An Gua Pian. These new crafting techniques resulted in new flavor profiles that are enjoyed to this day. Modern Chinese green teas typically feature a bright, crisp topnote followed by a rich, often nutty finish.
The best examples of Chinese green teas rely on terroir to impart extra depth of flavor through soil quality and environmental factors (like high elevations) that slow the growth process. They’re picked as early as possible in the spring to ensure maximum natural sweetness, and processed by master craftsmen who use intuition and experience to draw forth the best flavor from every harvest. Usually, high quality green teas grown in China brew with very little color and a delicate flavor that can require some focus to appreciate, but will never become bitter or astringent.
Japanese Green Teas
During the Ming Dynasty in China, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate was busy isolating itself from as much outside influence as possible. Rather than adopting the new crafting styles from China, Japan began to refine the traditional steaming techniques to their own tastes. Compressed cakes, which had once been broken and ground to a powder for steeping, inspired the development of powdered matcha and the highly structured Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Lesser teas, made for everyday drinking rather than ceremonial sipping, evolved into the looseleaf forms we know today, like gyokuro and sencha. With less land area and more communication between regions, styles became more standardized than in expansive China, and rapid industrialization in the 20th century saw the development of more efficient machine processes to replace expensive labor by hand. With less room for selecting the most prestigious terroir, Japanese tea farmers developed methods like soil enrichment to improve flavor concentration in the growing plant.
The best Japanese green teas use techniques like artificial shading to reduce sun exposure and increase the quantity of chlorophyll in the finished leaf. Methods like this, along with the steam processing believed to “seal in” flavor during crafting, results in a dark green color in both the finished leaves and the brewed liquor, as well as a rich, umami brothiness to the flavor. Leaves are often picked later in the spring than the best Chinese green teas, which also adds to the bold flavor of the brew. Most Japanese green teas must be brewed with care, as they can be very intense in flavor.
Released to public domain by owner. via Unsplash.
We find that Japanese green teas often pair exceptionally well with snacks or a meal, while more delicate Chinese green teas can be best appreciated on their own, without upsetting an empty stomach with strong flavors or acidity. Good quality versions of each will be made up of whole, young leaves, and will offer similar health benefits when grown using natural methods. Of course, your preference will ultimately depend on your palate, but knowing where your favorite teas come from can help you find more similar styles in the future!
Do you prefer Chinese green teas or Japanese green teas? Tell us why in the comments below!
Sign up for our newsletter to get blog updates in your inbox!